EDWARD B. LENT
AUTHOR OF "BEING DONE GOOD"
ILLUSTRATED BY H. B. MATTHEWS
NEW YORK CUPPLES & LEON
Copyright, 1906, by CUPPLES & LEON
TO MY FRIEND,
HERBERT F. GUNNISON,
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
CUPID'S MIDDLEMAN Frontispiece
"WHY, WHO IN THE WORLD COULD HAVE WRITTEN THIS NONSENSE?" LAUGHED HYGEIA 214
"YOU ADVERTISE ROOMS FOR LIGHT HOUSEKEEPING" 238
"I WROTE IT, GABRIELLE—AND FORGIVE ME" 286
"I CAME TO APOLOGIZE TO YOU, MR. TESCHERON" 322
John Alden was a celebrated Cupid's middleman. In presenting the cause of Miles Standish to Priscilla, however, he did not attend strictly to business as a jobber. He was not able to resist the lady when she asked: "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" That famous question has practically made it impossible for the middleman to make much headway in the assumed part. Benjamin Hopkins, of Oswegatchie County, was not a traitor—perhaps because he never met the fair Priscillas face to face.
This story can teach no new lesson; it can only recall the ancient wisdom which filled Miles Standish when it was too late. In the poem by Longfellow, the Plymouth Captain says:
"* * * I should have remembered the adage— If you would be well served, you must serve yourself; and moreover, No man can gather cherries in Kent at the season of Christmas!"
E. B. L.
"Jim, it's years since you asked me to help you out in a love affair," I said. "Has your old heart grown cold, shriveled up, or what's the matter?"
"You're right, Ben; it must be a long time back. But why don't you put out a few letters for yourself?"
"I wish I could get a dollar a ton for all I have written for you," said I; "then I'd have a fortune and all the girls would be chasing me for my money."
"Say, was it as bad as that, do you think?"
"Well, cut the price in two and I'd be satisfied."
"What a fool I was, Ben, to let you trifle with my fair friends in that way! You came near putting me in a terrible hole several times."
"Is that so? You never said anything about it. Tell me now."
"Not for a mansion and forty servants would I tell you. Well, I should say not. Nay! Nay!"
"I'll bet you profited by my efforts and you're not willing to let on. Do you think that is a friendly attitude to take toward an agent who has increased the range of your powers of fascination?"
"You came near increasing the length of my neck by several inches. Why, the fathers and big brothers of some of those girls you wrote to came near lynching me."
"Well, I wasn't to blame for that, was I?"
"You certainly were. You laid it on too thick."
"Not too thick to please the girls, did I?"
"Suited some of the girls first rate, but it's bad to write so much. It's apt to come back at you when you least expect it."
"What do you care so long as the girls were pleased? You were not courting the father. If you had intended to have the old gentleman read them I could easily have changed the style from a Grade A love to a nice assortment of short business phrases. But, say, Jim, you ought to tell me what happened. Come, now! Any bull's-eyes?"
"Do you know that you wrote enough letters to my girls to have married me off a dozen times or more? There are some streets I dare not pass through now—there's that foolish creature in West Thirty-eighth Street, for example."
I knew that Jim would leak a little if persistently tapped with interrogations.
"What about her? Did we send her many or was she easily won?" I asked. "Hard or soft?" As the middleman it was purely business with me.
"That girl was a queer case," said Jim, and he reflected for a moment. "Why, do you know, you had her running to clairvoyants for advice. She didn't think anything of putting up five dollars to learn how it was going to turn out. As soon as I heard that I quit calling and shut you off, for it was either that or get shot, I believed."
"That's quite a case, Jim. Let me into all of that, won't you?"
"I'm not going to tell you. It's past now, so let it go. You got me into enough trouble to fill a book. The book won't be written, though, for the inside story dies with me."
"Come, come, Jim; it's not fair to shut me out from all the excitement and fun after I did all the drudgery. Think how I used to struggle here to keep up my end."
"You struggle! Where do you suppose I came in? Still, I'll say no more about it, for I see you are trying to pump me. Let it pass. How do you find the state of the country to-night?"
Jim swung from the interesting subject to my hobby, political economy and measures for saving the nation from its impending doom. A man who can't make much headway toward home-building before or after marriage usually becomes a reformer. Men with families take things as they are, if they live at home instead of a club, and find plenty to do. I could not be moved without a protest.
"Never mind, Jim," said I. "You may want me to help you out some day and I shall not undertake to handle the case unless it is clearly stated in the contract that I am to be in at the finish."
"Agreed; Ben, you are to be there."
"Even though you're going to be lynched, don't hesitate to send for me."
"That'll probably be the finish, if I give my secrets away to you again. Still, I am past that now." He seemed to doubt his words, however.
"Hanging or wedding, I'm to be there—is that agreed?"
"You'll be the best man in any event and you may stand just as close as the minister or the mob will allow."
I could see that he was in a good humor and had noticed its increasing hold upon him for several weeks. Such a fine specimen of farm-bred manhood as Jim Hosley could not escape, although he had kept from the net and in the free waters of bachelorhood until he was thirty. Six feet two inches, broad-shouldered, fair-haired, and as rosy as a schoolboy, he seemed born to remain young and handsome always. Well do I remember this conversation now, and how little we then realized the nature of the fruitage of our folly which we discussed so airily that evening in our bachelor apartments where we kept house together.
I regret that I am not a literary man. I never corresponded with magazine editors without paying the return postage and therefore I am not in shape to put in the soft touches where they belong, and I am also aware that the field is too big for me, for it includes the heart of a woman, a domain in which I am easily lost, although I did set up to be a pilot for my friend.
As for my own matrimonial prospects, they were dim. I really cared nothing about them, for I understood I was such a small potato I wouldn't be noticed for seed, and there seemed poor prospects for me to ever sprout into anything that would attract attention enough to draw a handful of paris green and plaster. I had a better opinion of my ideas on saving the country, however. I found a lot of people who agreed with me that the country was going to the bad; that there wasn't much use trying to get money enough ahead to go into business, because if you did you would only net fresh air and exercise and an appetite that would cut whale oil and consume the margin.
Jim found it an easy matter to turn me from prying into his private affairs. I had just been reading my paper. "Shall Autocrats Rule Us?" was the subject of the editor's heavy work for the evening and it stirred me up. That fellow used "strong and powerful" language, as our dominie used to say when he was preaching and got two feet away from his notes on the pulpit and doubled on his tracks.
"You can put it down in your notebook, Jim, that I say the country is in a bad fix."
"That's right, Ben, and unless you get the job of mending it, no George Washington will appear."
"Listen to this," said I, paying no attention to his guying. "'Everywhere the voice is that of Democracy, but the hand and the checkbook are those of a respectable Autocracy.' Isn't that so? Why, when I had ploughed through a stack of those magazines" (and I pointed to our parlor table and its load of ten-cent literature) "I burned two fillings of the lamp, and I tell you I had to swallow hard on a lot of big words that would have kept old Webster chasing to the fellows he stole from; I wound in and out a lot of trotting sentences that broke twice to the line on a track that was laid out by a park gardener to go as far as possible without reaching anywhere, and I fetched up this morning with a swelled head, stuffed full of cold-microbes that had formed a combine from the nozzle of my Adam's apple clean up to a mass of chronic gooseflesh that had crusted on the top of my crown as solid as if it had been put there by a file-maker, expert in permanent pimpling—"
"Yes, I noticed them when you were at breakfast this morning," sniffed Jim.
"Why, it's no joke, Jim; this discussion about the country will wind up in some sort of a revolution. I have been talking around lately among the plain people, and a lot of them declare straight up and down that the country is going to peter out like the water in the tap here in our fifth flat when I am completely soaped up and have to stand there and feel it crackle and dry in my ears and burn me blind. Pretty soon those people who read my paper, say the prosperity of the United States will slow down into a quiet trickle, then a dribble shading off into a blast of air and a maddening gurgle, while folks stick their heads out the window and swear at the government for not giving them notice."
"It's an awful big country to save," said Jim. "Look at the Prohibitionists."
"Well, Jim, I must say I get discouraged when I read of one man being worth a thousand million dollars. It makes me feel mighty poor. I don't see any use in being ambitious and taking any stock at all in anything so far as I am concerned, but I do hate to see the government come to harm. I get to thinking that if the Declaration of Independence isn't going to hold out that I'll change my politics and then see what will happen. When a fellow who is as set in his ways as I am changes his politics, reform must be coming, for I would probably be the last man to flop."
"If you could stick to one girl the way you do to the Republican party," said Jim, "you would soon be letting the country go to blazes."
I could see that he was inclined toward shallow conversation. It was evident that he had more to tell me than he dared in view of the calamity which had followed his former confidences. I said nothing, merely making note of his mental condition. I was not through with the country by any means. It was best to pump Jim by indirect conversation.
"It's an awful thing to think of changing your politics," I continued. "Why, up in Oswegatchie County, as far back as anybody can remember or read in the town papers on file, my folks have been Republicans and have been honored with office, earned good salaries and some of the longest obituary poems ever penned by that necrological songbird, Amelia Benson."
"She sang like a catbird for fifty cents a column," remarked Jim.
"Her style was good for the price and it was preferred because it never struck below the belt," I added. "Her occasional verse was a trifle worse. Don't you know 'The Pain Killer' used to be full of it when advertisements ran low?"
"I always liked that paper in your town," said Jim—"for shaving."
Our paper was called "The Pain Killer" down in Jerusalem Corners and other distant places when it was so full of stomach-bitters advertisements that the news of the week had to be left out for a couple of issues and seemed such ridiculous reading when it appeared, especially to the sick who were then out ploughing and the parents of the babies that had been hinted about some time before and were then swaddled, exercising with the colic and ready to have their names in print as among those present.
Jim had an important engagement and dressed with some care to meet what was evidently a social demand of consequence. I had observed of late that clothes were playing a greater part in his society drama. It seemed to me he must be getting close to a leading lady.
The conversation ended with a "Good-night" from Jim and he passed out leaving me to ponder alone. The hermits of the country have time to consider its welfare, so I went to reading my magazines to gather more inspiration for denouncing the United States Senate and the rest of the rascals.
The railroads are to blame. I hold them responsible, for one of them brought me down to New York ten years ago on a ten-dollar excursion ticket, and an old Sunday-school teacher of mine who had seen all he could pay for here wanted to get back, so he made me an offer of five dollars for the return half, and after practicing my handwriting for a spell he got so accurate he could write my name about as well as I could, in case the conductor cornered him and wanted to throw him off into the Black River. He landed home all right and nobody was the wiser. Would that all my trickery had died as gentle a death! But I see now that fooling with another fellow's courtship and cheating a railroad are different, because the railroad is everybody's business and the other is supposed to be a private affair. Cheating a railroad used to be no crime till they got to cheating us so hard. I remember up in Oswegatchie County that all of my folks in the County Clerk's office held passes and seldom complained about the railroad robbing us of our land, so that five dollars taken contrary to the contract on the ticket did not worry me overmuch, because I knew my dad would have closed on it like Jim Jackson's foot always accidentally trod on and spiked anything that rolled his way in the old man's store.
Jim Hosley and I, two bachelors who have been down here in this great metropolis for ten years, looking for the fortunes we always hear about at the annual Waldorf dinners of the Oswegatchie County Society as being a part of the perquisites of our northern tribe, then lived together in a top apartment pretty well down-town, conveniently situated five flights up without an elevator and the same number back on the turn when anything was needed from the corner store. Jim came from Gorley and I from Dazer Falls. The solitude of the upper air, therefore, suited us. A man can stand for five hours at any corner in Dazer Falls and shout "Fire" through a forty-inch megaphone without starting up a native. Dazer Falls is a study in village still life. In Gorley silence and race suicide are equally common and not noticed except by strangers. Up in the fifth flat we got away from the world almost as well, except that the clatter of our dish-washing and the thumping of our disagreeing opinions would at times sound like the whirr of industry, for Jim and I did our own housework, our own thinking and lived as cheaply as monopoly will permit (monopoly, that is the thing I am against as a political economist, I can tell you). The pile that was to come our way we had not yet receipted for. Once or twice, years before, we had thought we were getting close to it, but we found we'd have to change our politics to get farther. After that I lost all personal ambition, as I could get so few people to listen to my plans for making everything right. These kickers spent all their time kicking against monopoly, but wouldn't let me show them how to slay it. When I began my studies along this line I hesitated whether to begin war near the top with the United States Senate or at the bottom with the poor masses in the slums. Down at the bottom I would be more at home, for I know full well what it is to be bleached by the blues of adversity. In saving the masses though, by a direct appeal, I did not think I could do much to brag about down here, for they don't understand more than half you say to them in English and their suspicion sours the half they take in before they make any use of it. This would have made it extra hard for me, because advice was all I had to use in saving the country. Up in the United States Senate I used to think I might do something, but it was such a long way up from where I stood. They have been taking tremendous fees up there for their own advice, generally given to other members of their distinguished body or to members of their own State legislatures, as to how to vote wisely on this or that piece of law ordered by their clients. Therefore, it seemed to me it would be only reasonable for them to take my advice, as they might be able to turn it over at a good figure a little later on when the custom-made law business picked up again. Just now I don't suppose they could do much with it, for most of those old codgers are as glum as a funeral march; but, of course, I admit I am no judge of chin music and could not understand what they said, probably, if they spoke.
I want to state right here, though, that it is a mistake for a man to undertake to save the country and to have ideas on that subject when he tries to help another fellow win the heart of a girl and gets mixed up in the tangle that such interference is bound to bring on anybody who attempts it. I didn't know, and therefore I should have thrown up the job as soon as I began to get wound in it. You have heard that gentle hum of the buzz-saw? You have seen how still it runs and how its feathery edge seems calm during the lull in the sawmill? You also noticed that no one who understands the sawmill business ever goes near it to give it a friendly tap just when it is looking that way? It is the same with the other fellow's love affairs. Leave them alone when all is quiet, and when there are ructions leave them alone. They are buzz-saws for theorists. A man with ideas on saving the country is the poorest man in the world to undertake to help save a friend with a sick heart. The little matter of the country is a cinch compared to that job. Why, the little matter of stringing a few extra stars to make traveling at night safer on the Milky Way would be an easy contract compared to that. But I touched the saw and it certainly did cut off a lot of opinions I used to be proud of.
Jim and I had a habit of going over the sad state of the country pretty thoroughly during our leisure moments in the evening. There were chairs in our parlor that fitted us to a dot. They were seldom if ever dusted, unless they were accidentally turned over and then some would fall off, but no one ever disturbed them and ruffled them into hard knots just to improve their appearance. We sat on the chairs, not on their appearance. During our talks Jim did the listening. This constituted a de facto conversation. His knowledge of Gorley and up-State affairs, after an absence of ten years, was well maintained by regularly reading the county papers, but his knowledge of monopoly and our foreign affairs came wholly from me while we would sit and cure the air of our front room with our smoking corncobs. And dad, who used them in his smokehouse, used to say they beat sawdust for flavor. We mixed a little short-cut tobacco to sweeten the cob. This was not our ideal way of spending the evening, for we had a Perfecto ambition. For ten years, though, we had been gradually squeezing ourselves to fit circumstances and had come to realize that the pipe and kerosene oil are the cheapest fuel and light the trusts offer in New York. A gallon of oil a week, a pound of tobacco and seven scuttles of coal stood us in for our quota of comfort, and as we paid our humble tributes to the concerns that had cornered these articles we were happy in the thought that it wasn't as bad as it might be. They had not yet cornered the air necessary to oxidize these commodities, although they had the connecting link, the match, and would no doubt soon get the air.
We perched there in the top flat after a long trial of the abnormalities of boarding-house life. I heard them called that once and it seemed to me that it fitted. We were fairly cosy, although, as I have hinted, there was nothing over-ornate about the furnishings. No woman had ever seen the place and therefore our ideas as to keeping it always the same were never disturbed, and it had never been spoken ill of. In the winter we kept house with more system than we did in the summer, when dish-washing became too much of a burden and appetite dwindled to chipped beef and angel cake, two simple things to serve. We got fagged out in this climate in the summer, and if you had been born in Oswegatchie County, where forty degrees below zero is as common as at the North Pole, and had then lived up there beneath the roof of that flat, you would understand. In all our wanderings through the art galleries and the comic papers we had never found an artist who could draw the sun like that tin roof.
Jim was almost as much interested as I was in having no harm come to the government, but not quite. We both worked for the city, holding civil service jobs. His was only a small city job, that of Sealer of Weights and Measures, while I was connected with the Department of Health as an Inspector of Offensive Trades, with more pay to offset the larger responsibilities.
Jim once asked me what I did and I explained it this way:
"An Inspector of Offensive Trades must have a nose as delicately trained as a Sousa's ear, so that when a blast from the full olfactory orchestra rolls up from Newtown Creek and its stupefying vibrations are wafted on the fog billows driven by a gusty east wind toward the Department of Health, he can detect strains of the glue hoofs quite independently of the abattoir's offal bass, and tell at a sniff if discord breathes from the settling tanks of the fish factory or if the aroma of the fertilizer grinder is two notes below standard pitch as established by the officials to meet the approval of the sensitive ladies of the civic smelling committees."
You can see that my work called for a peculiar kind of brains.
Jim, in those days, went around to the grocery stores and made sure that the scales were in working order and that the weights balanced with the official weights he carried in a small bag. If he found a groceryman using weights that had been bored out to make them lighter he made an arrest and usually laid off for two days because he had to be a witness against the prisoner at court. He took these vacations at regular intervals, about twice a month, so I figured he did not pounce down on a man as soon as he found him giving short weight, but saved those desirable cases for use at regular periods when he required rest with a day or two at home.
Jim was not lazy, but he was not so spry as he was ten years ago when he was fresh from playing full-back on our scrub team. For a number of years he had been tramping around outdoors all day and had been inclined to play full front on the gastronomic flying wedge at the restaurants, where we commuted for our meals as long as we could stand it before taking up the primitive notions of the culinary art practiced in our own kitchen. Our cooking became very simple. After we tackled making fried cakes and both went to bed with headaches from the cottonseed oil, I asked Jim to take what we had turned out to a neighboring machine shop and see if they didn't want some three-inch washers for locomotive work.
The farmer and the manicure artist have discovered the same law of compensation. If a man has a big ear he may have only a little corn. With Jim it was about the same. He chased short-weight fellows all day and when it came night he piled on all the weight he could just to lift himself out of the under-weight rut of the day's work. Fat kept Jim sociable—I don't mean that he was portly, but he was filled out well over the angles of youth. This was desirable, because a lean bachelor can't live with another lean one. I don't know why, except it's Nature's law. He hyenas in the same cage act the same way.
Before Jim started in to take on weight he had been passing through quite a long correspondence with a young woman, and it was so long that I began to give out on poetry and was thinking of laying in more stock in that line to drive the arrow home to a finish. Jim had never done any courting without consulting me. I attended to the correspondence and rather liked my job, because it gave me experience that might be useful. Now that it is all over, of course, I know better—I look the other way.
At the time we were very busy in one of these affairs, I remember, Jim was blue-eared, ragged-nerved and petulant to such a degree that I began to think of shipping him back to the old farm, where pork gravy and fried cakes would certainly restore his nervous system; otherwise I felt he would land in a padded cell. Nothing he ate agreed with him and I felt sure it must be a bad case of unrequited love. He looked sour upon all the world, mistaking me most of the time for the man who ran it. We were both on the point of getting a divorce when he began to take a bottle of ale regularly at dinner. The first week Jim mounted a pound a day and we were both overjoyed to note the improvement in our relations which the ugly co-respondent (did you ever see a co-respondent that wasn't ugly?) had threatened to disturb with the Dakota chills.
The remedy proved it was not a girl who bothered him. For a long time after when Jim felt nervous I would recommend ale. I did not believe it was possible for a woman to disturb him, but I was wrong again.
When Jim had returned two cases of empties we were on thoroughly good terms again. Of course we are glad he tried the ale, but if we had parted then and there we might have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. The small amount the junk man would have paid for our outfit might have been better than what we netted.
Any man who knows the first thing about housekeeping, who has gone deep enough into it to bring in wood or light a lamp, ought to know that the upper story of a double boiler is not the thing to fry eggs in. How any man with the faintest glimmering of a suspicion that he can cook an egg should hit upon a tool as unhandy as that, is beyond me. A double boiler is a telescopic arrangement used by first-class cooks for boiled puddings. I understand that they prefer them because the raisins do not get frightened and all huddled up at the bottom trying to escape, like they do if boiled in the New England fashion in a towel. Jim Hosley knew nothing of this, never having read the Gentleman's Home Journal to any extent. One night when I came in—one of the big nights in our history, all right—I found him frying two eggs with this back-handed device. Of course it made no difference to me if he fried them right on the coals and lost everything except the fun of doing it; at the same time I felt called upon to point out the skillet as the appropriate kitchen furniture for the occasion. It was certainly a peculiar notion and hinted to me that another woman had arrived and would soon be everywhere in that flat.
"Jim, you don't know enough about frying eggs," said I, "to deserve them at six for a quarter. You ought to eat canned goods or something you can't damage by fire."
"This thing suits me better than your flat pan," said he. "You see how I can take off the lid and jam it right down on the coals and have it all over while you are waiting to warm up on top. Never used to cook eggs up home—always sucked them; down here, been pulling at this pipe so long, or eating brass goods in the restaurants, I seem to have lost the liking for them. Tried them when up there last summer, but it warn't no use; they didn't taste the same."
"Same with me," I sadly admitted, with my mind on the girl. "There didn't seem to be enough nicotine in them to suit."
"Ben, chase yourself and find the pepper and salt, and be good enough to tell me whose funeral it is down-stairs to-night," interrupted Jim, changing the subject.
"I didn't know there was one," said I. "How far down is it?"
"Think of that," said I. "When the world gets crowded it seems to grow careless and unneighborly. We don't either of us know who lives there, and here we have been coming and going for about three years in this place. Still, we are only here nights. Yet it's a strange world. Think of living within ten feet of anybody in Oswegatchie County and not knowing them—especially if they have a vote."
"It is a queer place here in New York," said Jim, quietly. "It keeps getting busier all the time. Even the women hustle." I think now he sighed there, but I am not certain. "We don't get time to get acquainted with ourselves, let alone our neighbors ten feet away. A man might have his own funeral here and never know it. Never thought I'd have to live in such a place," he continued. "This will be a lonesome world when there are no country folks."
"Jim, you're getting to be a philosopher," said I. "In you that is a sure sign a woman's picture is focusing on your brain. I've never known you to drop into sentiment while using the double boiler. Is it that girl down-town?" (I had heard her name from others, Gabrielle Tescheron, for I kept close watch of him, but he did not know that I knew it.) "You know the one I mean—the girl who sticks her tongue out to straighten her veil."
"No, no," said Jim, laughing. "I made it plain to her that she'd have to marry both of us."
"A kind of matrimonial sandwich, eh? But say, Jim, come to think of it, I have heard you tell several times lately just what bad weather we have been having on Sundays for the past three months. It's a clincher. No?"
Jim began to pound the bottom of the inverted boiler with the lid lifter to secure a release of the eggs, which he earnestly hoped would let go and land on the plate.
"Did you grease that thing?" I asked, as he tum-tummed in vain, for the eggs had glued into a fresco showing a rising and setting sun on opposite sides of the bottom.
"No; didn't know where you kept the grease. What would you recommend in a case of this kind?"
But before I could advise, Jim had made fair headway in transferring the eggs directly without the intervention of a plate, an economy we practiced frequently. The meal was served in the kitchen to save steps and progressed with customary smoothness, each getting up a dozen times or so to bring things from the shelves or the stove. While we were slicking up the dishes I got to chuckling and Jim began to blush and look foolish. I could see that he knew I had found him out. We made short work of the chores. I wound the alarm clock and sent down the milk bottle via the dumb waiter, which you can't tip with a dime, but have to push or pull clean to or from the cellar, unless it happens to be en route just as you get there and can chuck your load aboard.
We then stretched out in the cosy front room, and lighting our pipes warmed to the task of being comfortable. I was pained to feel that the day must come when woman would part us, but I said nothing more, determined to let time and Jim's confiding nature reveal the tender secrets of his heart now melting for that girl with the dancing brown eyes, the mass of filmy dark hair straying in wisps from a harness of braid, ribbon and pins, to Jim's utter distraction and the poor girl's despair.
All my efforts in Jim's behalf had been lost apparently, or Jim, having won the prizes in each case, became disenchanted for one reason or another. Perhaps like my love letters, the girls were works of art and would not bear too close an inspection. The coming case would make one more failure, I imagined; still, I was sorry I had remarked how she had coaxed her veil into shape; but with that wanton hair, a hat which was a department to manage in itself, a tailor-made primness of figure to superintend and the curvatures of Jim's conversation to follow, I could understand that she needed the help of all her senses to keep her pretty, light-hearted poise. I sighed to think of the trouble in store for Mrs. Jim, not in the least knowing what a remarkable woman she was; in my estimation of her at that time I think I was about as far off the track as I got at any subsequent turn.
Jim had been uninterested so long (nearly three years), I felt love was now a proposition which wouldn't find a crevice in his heart to trickle into and widen until it split him asunder. But with the clever young woman of business, in the rush and turmoil of the down-town hustle, it is such a gentle humidity it seems to work its corrosion unseen in the broad daylight. Thermometer readings don't show it. You have to keep close to the barometer of eyes and sighs to know anything definite of its ups and downs—unless it passes into fog or pours, then everybody can see it dropping through the air. I began to feel that it would pour soon around Jim, and I shuddered, for I thought I already heard the patter of light feet in the hall. Some of the gray poetry of loneliness began to spread around my disturbed and anxious soul for fear no drippings like that would ever fall on me. Race suicide conscientiously practiced is a hard game. Nature abhors a vacuum, and especially human nature. Perhaps this girl had a sister. A comfortable introspection began to take the contract of illuminating my mind. Agreeable family scenery was thrown around by the magic of the thought. It scattered about six kids for Jim and the same-sized bunch for me—enough to prove that human nature abhors the inter-marrying of men as Jim and I had tried it.
We naturally drifted away from the subject we were both thinking about and got around to talking on old home matters—the day's doings and the state of the country; graft, buying and selling law, and what it all had to do with harming the government and the likelihood of losing our jobs.
It was about 8:30 o'clock as near as I can remember, when a timid knock on the front door startled both of us. I answered the call, expecting to find that fairy Miss Tescheron ready to pop in and oust me like a Republican hold-over on a Tammany Happy New Year's. I peeped out as charily as a jailer. The dim light revealed a tiny messenger boy—something awful had probably happened up home! A messenger boy was enough to startle both of us, for no one in the world would spend half a dollar to tell us anything unless they were scared into it. I swung the door open and the boy took off his cap and removed from its sweat-band stronghold a neat-looking note.
"Say, boss, does Mr. Benjamin Hopkins live up here?" he asked between breaths, for the five flights had tuckered him.
"That's me," said I, reaching for the note and carefully scanning the typewritten address, for upon second thought I believed love and not fright might have sent a note to Jim. But it was for me, so I opened it and leaning toward the lamp read in diplomatically suppressed wonder:
"Mr. Benjamin Hopkins,
"97 East Eighteenth Street, New York.
"Dear Sir: Do not mention this matter to Hosley, but I wish to see you at once at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. I have instructed the clerk to send you to my room immediately. Please come right away, as the matter cannot wait."
"Her pa," thought I; but I didn't let on. A stale actor in a play couldn't have pulled himself together in a more unconcerned-I-do-this-every-night fashion than I signed for the note, tipped the poor little shaver and closed the door.
Jim eyed me in surprise, but it was nothing to my own astonishment. What did old Tescheron want of me? No matter.
"Jim, I've got to run up-town for a few minutes about some work," was the wording of my deception, eased by the thought that it was in his behalf. I slipped on my hat and coat and started for the door, taking in at a glance that Jim was smoking hard and squirming uneasily.
One thing I liked about Tescheron—he talked business from the start. He jumped into it at once, so that I had no time to take notice of anything except that he talked without an accent, was probably French only in name and that he wore clothes which were superfine. I never saw such a dresser for a man with iron-gray hair and fifty-five years to contend against in the youth-preserving business, which I calculated was one of his pleasures in life, if not his vocation. Nothing I figured on coming up-town happened except that I found my man. A sixty-year old boy brought me to the room on the third floor.
I could see that Mr. Tescheron was a whole encyclopedia on manners, but he gave me the paper-covered digest which retails for ten cents, and began:
"Hope I reached you just at the close of the funeral."
"What funeral?" I asked.
"Say, see here, Hopkins, I want you to talk fair and square with me—no nonsense, you understand. You know of the funeral—Mrs. Browning's—and if you weren't there you know when it was over and when Hosley returned. I am pretty hot in the collar over this business; all happened right under my nose; never thought of such a thing happening; but I'm not too late to stop this infernal impostor, not too late! Of course you don't know anything about my end of it, Hopkins, and I know that you, too, have been fooled at your end, for I've looked you up. I have reports from a dozen business men who say you are perfectly square and that is why I send for you now that we may work together and make the greatest headway. Do you know that the scoundrel Hosley has become infatuated with my daughter?—a pretense for criminal purposes, of course. To-day he seeks me out to tell me they are engaged! A few hours later I hear he is crying at the funeral of his wife!"
There was some French in Tescheron after all, for he waved his arms and danced about like a man whose tongue won't wag fast enough to please him.
If Jim had dealt with large business concerns as an inspector, instead of corner grocerymen and small storekeepers, they might have saved him. The business men whom Tescheron had consulted regarding me, I afterward learned, were the manufacturers whose plants I had investigated for the city. Some of the best families in New York are connected with Newtown Creek glue and they, it seems, had stuck to me in this emergency. A fish man will believe anything a glue man tells him; I don't know why, but it's so, and the fact was certainly to my advantage.
When Tescheron had calmed I broke out with a hiss and a stutter; it wasn't a laugh, for I haven't laughed in years. All my laughing since 1889 has been a strictly intellectual process; but I did have an awful pain because I could not digest his statement with a bouncing laugh. All I could do was to stammer and splutter like a bass viol tuning up, while I sozzled around in my chair trying to break in with something that would count. Why should a man of my temperament take a hand in love, war or diplomacy? As a theoretical manipulator of fathers-in-law, as a text-book writer on the subject, I was in the extra fancy class, but the part of Daniel in the lion's den could not be played by me unless I agreed to step in the marble-lined vestibule of open jaws and get kicked down the back stairs after a thorough overhauling. On the firing line my plans did not fit and I became a failure.
A smell of fish in the room restored me. I knew not whence it came, but its soft presence yielding to my keen detector restored my professional pride and self-respect. I then felt I was something of a detective after all. I eyed a revolving ventilator in the window-pane as a possible avenue of its entrance from the culinary department. I did not suspect Tescheron.
"I see you are not inclined to side with me in this matter," he rattled on. "To-night I notify the coroner. I—"
"Are you a fool?" I blurted with that rare presence of mind which will some day save me by putting me in jail. "Are you an idiot? You seem to be gone in the head. Call a dozen coroners, by all means, and be the laughing-stock of the town. Drag your whole family into the illustrated newspapers. Go ahead and have a good time at your own expense. Get out the fire department and have them squirt on you!" I was surprised at the string of sarcasm which rolled forth when I did start.
Tescheron danced a first-class vaudeville turn and shouted: "Say what you please, I notify the coroner! Hosley killed his wife so that he might marry my daughter; I have had detectives out, so I know and you don't. I—"
"How long have you had them out?"
"Since two o'clock to-day—soon as he left me."
"Since two o'clock to-day, eh? And what did you have against Mr. Hosley before that hour, pray?"
"Oh, nothing except a strong personal dislike to him—but I have enough against him now; I have enough now! I had told him he was too old; that he had done nothing to merit her—just to gain time, you see. I wanted time to find out; to look him over with care; with the same precaution I would use in a cold matter of business. It was well I did; it's a mighty good thing I used my business sense in this matter. You see, you are no man of business. You—"
"Well," said I with a calmness affected to aggravate the man who was sure, "you couldn't have hired a better lot of men. They pass you out Jim Hosley, married, and a widower by murdering his wife, and have him engaged to your daughter in six hours. It is as pretty a story as I ever read. A man who wouldn't ring up the coroner on that needs one for his own autopsy. Why, any man would be proud to have a coroner in the family on the strength of all that. Tescheron, let's talk about the pleasant memories of the past. What asylums that you have been in do you prefer—eh?"
Tescheron proceeded to give me the repertoire of the dancing school. When he began to polka and upset the furniture he dropped his cologned handkerchief. I tossed it up on the ventilator, for somebody had ordered a lot more fish.
"So he has fooled you, too? Yes? You have been living with him there and did not know he was married to a woman in a flat right below yours—her name is Browning. I saw that you remembered it. Strange, ain't it? Do you know how she died? No? I see you do not. You are very smart, very clever. You have talked just as I hoped you would. Let me introduce Mr. Smith."
And from behind a screen stepped a slight, middle-aged man with keen blue eyes and fair complexion. I shook hands with Mr. Smith. He was a wide-awake little man, not in the least embarrassed by the eavesdropping, as it was part of his business. I have lived long enough to know that there are all kinds of Smiths. He was one of them.
Of course I began to feel that they were crowding me to turn State's evidence against my faithful Jim. The thought of the funeral in the early evening in the flat below ours, and Jim's innocent inquiry concerning it, had flashed upon me. I still felt that Mr. Smith was only making out a good case to match a big bill. If Jim Hosley had been leading a double life at such short range without my knowing it I must be a chuckle-head. I knew Jim Hosley was honest; that easy as his conscience was in trifling matters, he knew no guile. If a Mrs. Browning had been living below us she was as much a stranger to him as her relative's poetry—in fact it might have been hers for all Jim knew or cared.
Smith answered a knock on the door and stepped into the hall for half a minute.
"You don't begin to know this scoundrel," continued Mr. Tescheron, eyeing me like a man with the facts. "Perhaps you will deny that this fellow Hosley served two years in prison at Joliet, Illinois; that he was indicted for forgery in Michigan and got into a mix-up in Arizona, whence he skipped at the point of a pistol and made his way down into Mexico. This fellow Hosley has passed under a dozen different names. He is notorious in criminal annals. He is so clever that he can completely fool you and deceive my daughter, who, I would have you understand, is a smart woman—one not easily fooled. It is lucky I took this thing in hand when I did, or, as you say, we would have all been shown up in the papers."
Well, I let the old codger run along at this clip. It beat anything I had ever heard, but it didn't disturb me, as I have stated, except to create a pain that a good laugh would have cured. What could I say up against a know-it-all combination? Hadn't the detectives been at work a whole six hours? What kind of records did they keep in their office if they couldn't bunch a choice bouquet of crime for a fellow willing to pay for it? You can buy anything in New York. The detective bureau had found good enough clues in Mr. Tescheron's desire for a discovery and in his commercial rating which showed that he could pay top prices for the disgrace of a would-be son-in-law in the estimation of his devoted daughter. The detective bureaus, lawyers' offices and "society" papers that deal in this blasting powder and take contracts to shatter good names were common enough; everybody knew them. People like Tescheron, though, only knew their names, not their reputations, and like many honest folks went to one of these concerns because he had seen its name frequently in print. Publicity draws trade sometimes without reputation, especially first customers. Tescheron was a new hand at this business of ruining character with the aid of a criminal detective bureau and its lawyer allies and associates on the slanderous "society" papers that fatten on the frailties of human beings with money to buy exemption, but too weak to fight the slimy devils whose pens drip this filth from the social sewage pots; he knew not the parasites who cling to the maggoty exudations of every form of social disorder. That is the way I figured it. I want it straight on the record here that my devotion to Jim Hosley at that interview began to tighten like the Damon-and-Pythias grip of a two-ton grab bucket. I was figuring to die beside Jim with a Nathan Hale poise of the head and some pat remark.
Smith, the sharp-eyed, handed a paper to Mr. Tescheron. They whispered about it for a minute or so in one corner, and then Mr. Tescheron read it aloud:
"Hosley and the undertaker drove away in coach together following hearse. Two men following."
As he finished they both looked at me, probably expecting me to be convinced that all virtue was on their side and to unite with them or at least listen while they revealed all they knew about Jim Hosley's career of crime and deception. But I had enough. I knew where the crime was there, I believed. I opened up on a new line.
"I guess I'll notify the coroner," said I quietly, starting to go.
"No, no!" shouted Tescheron. "I did not mean to do that. I only said that to draw you out. All I ask of you, Mr. Hopkins, is that you give your evidence against this man when I next summon you. I am glad to find you convinced at last—but never mind the coroner. I can accomplish my purpose under cover."
I edged away.
"No, I think you have convinced me that it is my duty to notify the coroner," said I, "so that this murderer, Hosley, may be put to death. It's a nasty business for all of us," I said, "except Smith, here, who won't mind it."
"Hopkins, if you do that you will spoil all my plans," pleaded the now completely flustrated Tescheron. "Stand in with me. Help me to present the truth about this rascal in the presence of my daughter and all will go well. As for the authorities, let them take care of their end themselves. The Tescheron family is not to be sacrificed! Think of yourself, man! Surely you don't want to be mixed up in such a horrible crime—you who have been fooled for years. Come, now! Agreed, eh?"
"I'll think it over," said I, giving one down-stroke of the handle for a parting shake to each of these brainy men and then I passed out. As I traveled toward home, I regretted I had been so confident, and had not asked to be shown all the evidence they had against Hosley. That proved to be more of a mistake than I supposed, as I hurried along.
Just before entering our house, I called a boy and sent this message to Mr. Tescheron, at his home in Ninety-sixth Street. I found the address in the telephone book:
"Have notified Coroner Flanagan. He has telephoned all the cemeteries to hold body. Autopsy to-morrow. Rest easy. I am with you.
Flanagan would enjoy the joke, I thought, on my way home. Coroner Tim Flanagan, the Tammany leader of the district in which we lived, was the friend of everybody in his territory, and took a kindly interest in Jim and me, although we held office on other tenure than "pull." We bought tickets every year for the annual clam-bake of the Timothy J. Flanagan Association, held at Rockaway, and there mingled with the politicians big and little, and the fellows from our departments. We office-holders knew which side our bread was buttered on, and we also liked clams. We did not attend the annual mid-winter ball of the same association, but we never failed to buy tickets admitting "ladies and gent." If the news that I had taken undue liberty with his name came back to Flanagan I knew he would quickly forgive me. Flanagan was a good fellow, straight and loyal.
As I passed through the vestibule of our apartment house I looked at the letter-boxes and noticed the narrow string of crape tied on the little knob, under the badly written name, "Browning." If the sad event had closed, as reported by the subordinates of Smith, the careless undertaker had forgotten to remove this shred of formality.
I found the murderer, forger and bad man of the border, in bed, snoring as if he was glad he had always stuck to the treadmill of virtue, and had never murdered a wife to get another with money, or had raised a check for a cool million or so without the formalities of a pious purloiner from the people's purse. No criminal in history had ever slept with a smoother rhythm to his heart-beat than this one, with the elite of New York's private detective bureaus hot upon his trail for a long chase. His sonorous snore might have sent a waver through the mind of the crafty Tescheron, and made the wily Smith feel that the case would dwindle to less than a week's job, when he was probably figuring on a good two thousand dollars in it, having sized up the buyer pretty well.
I felt satisfied that my telegram would put some insomnia in Ninety-sixth Street when the great work closed for the night at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and the protector of the household returned to rest those tired wheels that had been whirring fast in his head since 2 P. M., short-belted to the Smith dynamo of fraud.
I didn't expect to do much sleeping myself, so I proceeded to divest and relax under the sedative pull of my pipe. For about half an hour I creaked the comfortable rocker, and pondered on that old subject of fools and their money, and how it was that wise men like myself had so little of it. The solitudes and soliloquies of life appealed to me—especially with a nice bunch of fake crime hovering in the air between me and, say, a few feet beneath my rocker. I was lolling in our front parlor, probably not ten feet above the spot just vacated by the latest victim, and the man who would swing or singe for the deed was playing a soft nostrilian air two doors down the hall—but, no! The tune stopped! The villain had turned 216 pounds over on a set of springs which shiveringly reported the man-quake in their midst. A brief moment of calm—just enough for a murderer to lick his chops and gather a lulling sense of monotony from the contemplation of a fresh wife-slaying, and he was off again with the sheriff after him for exceeding the speed limit. His horn was clearing the track and the vibrations blended in a romping continuity.
The deeper Jim got into his Bluebeard dreams, or his fairyland of love, the deeper I got into my hobby, political economy, and to thinking of the wide difference between us.
Somebody had to do a little thinking, for Fate was tying our affairs in hard, wet knots, and the chances were we'd have to stay under the stream of life's perplexities. Jim was so smooth in appearance (alas! but not in tongue) he might slip out of a corner as easily as his fine manners enabled him to progress in society. But I was no man for style. I could cut no swath with women. The few times I had tried it, the scythe had turned upon me, took me for an extra tough bunch of wet grass and stung me badly. I could see that my chances there were poor. If Jim got out of this murder business, as I believed he would soon, I intended to run the flat alone, fill it full of books written by people who have advised the country out of a spirit of pure patriotism (and into a worse hole), and after reading all they had to say, I thought I could produce something original that would put them all out of print, with my small volume standing alone on the shelves, as the last word on the pursuit of happiness, containing full directions on how to keep to the trail, from birth to the grave, with a stop-over ticket at the last-named junction. I felt that all this was in me, just as Jim felt there was something in him, he didn't know what, but so long as it kept him fidgeting he knew it was there.
It was not surprising to my friends that I had given up all hope for myself. As I have said, I was no man for style. It always seemed to me that my clothes fitted me when I was buying them, but it never struck anybody else that way afterward. I paid the same prices as Jim, but I would have done just as badly at three times as much, and might just as well have saved money buying second-hand through a want "ad." Nature designed me to spoil tailoring. If I had lived in Eden the fig leaves on my belt would have browned and cracked before noon the first day, and if a few figs were then worn on the side as fringe ornaments, I would have carelessly picked them inside out, making the suit look seedier still. On a foggy morning the dewdrops of Paradise would have spotted me, and on a windy day the flying burrs and feather-tailed seeds would have taken me for good ground; the pussy willows and all such forest fuzz and excelsior—for a good thing. If I had been a Roman no one would have seen me down street, for I would be in the baths waiting for my wrapper to be scoured, washed and mended.
This is a way Fate has of keeping a few scholars and investigators in the world. Herbert Spencer would have been swamped in a family, and the same with George Eliot. If they had married each other, as Herbert says they might (had Georgie been better-looking), philosophical and imaginative genius would have been lost in getting the meals and bending posterity over the parental knee to make sin seem undesirable. I had always felt that Jim was cut out to get married, and I stood ready to help him through the entire catalogue of crime and conspiracy, for I knew he could not undertake so much alone as well as I knew glue from tallow coming two miles by air line. If Jim wanted to do it, though, I would give him the benefit of my knowledge of the theory of courtship, a subject I was well up in, having read considerably more fiction than he had. This with my keen intuitive perceptions, I felt fitted me to act again in an advisory capacity, for my critical faculties were massive, although, as I have hinted, my executive qualities as a lover were undersized.
I had time for Jim's affairs, because society had peculiar horrors for me. Let a woman say something at a dinner or a reception, and my neck would begin to swell like a pouter pigeon's and my collar would close down like a pair of hedge clippers centered at the back collar button. This would cause no alarm in the young woman, for she would imagine the choking symptoms were only signs of an embarrassment produced by her interest in me. This would not have been a bad thing, for bashful men always get the most encouragement, and if persistently bashful, are coaxed into all the intricate arts of the gentle game by the woman who is interested in them. Thus I always seemed to have the good luck of the bashful man up to the last gasp, and until I began to turn blue. She would then see that it was apoplexy, and not her charms, which was undoing me. But the apoplexy, the bulging veins and the reddening eyes were forgotten when I sought relief by inserting the first two fingers of each hand on either side of my collar, and with a short, outward jerk, would open the starchy shears that were fastening like a constrictor around my air valves. This would startle the young creature into diffidence, and I always hated to do it, but it was the only way I could assume my self-control. Following the application of the two-finger movement, relief would come quickly, with a splutter and a stammering apology for not catching her last remark. My volubility from that point to the next attack, when interrupted by a suggestion which would derail me, or by a third party not following our train of thought, would impress the hearer that it was the collar which was tight. This remarkable misfortune, of course, deprived me of the influence of the bashful man, and as I was no dissembler I could not take advantage of the appearance of my distress. My blushes were wholly due to choking and could not pass for flashes reflexed by heart-throbs.
There was another thing I had to battle with from my entrance into society. Jim could look like a lord in a dress suit. I always looked like a lord knows what! The Sun once published a picture of the dress trousers of Grover Cleveland and David B. Hill lined up with those of Governor Montague of Virginia, for impartial presentation by a flashlight photograph. It was an astonishing revelation of Democracy below the waist line. Jim cut it out and put it in a pretty straw frame. He said he never wanted me to lose sight of the styles set by great statesmen. Montague, as became his aristocratic name and lineage, was a model of perfection about the legs, and Jim said it proved he would never get to Washington and take rank with our great men. Cleveland and Hill, however, who had been there, evidently pinned their trousers in curl-papers, so that they were always ready to look fancy in society and be snap-shotted. Mine followed the Washington route without urging. Then, as to vest, coat and shirts: no tailor could make a coat for me that could trail after my neck when it was engaged in the throes of a society conversation. The coat had to go off at the back of the collar and stand to one side until the neck was through talking. The vest generally showed only two square inches and gave little trouble to the public, so long as I kept my coat on and hid the safety-pins which reefed it in the back. The shirt, up to a certain course of the dinner, would keep under the napkin, but until I learned of a patent mixture to cover the bosom with a transparent waterproofing, used to protect wall-paper and other delicate fabrics from ink stains and finger-marks, I found it a burden to carry so much exposed linen. But with this wax paint, I care not what drops on it; it won't stick unless it's hot metal, and there is not so much of that in the air at dinners this side of Arizona.
Studs are a source of mortification to me. I have paid as high as fifty cents for a set of three and had them all break off the first night, exposing the brass settings. I sought to reduce this torment by wearing only one stud-hole, but that makes it necessary to go away into a far country, three times during the dinner, to bore out the stump of the old stud and drive in the new. Any man who has done the job with his collar and tie on, knows that he is as pop-eyed as a lobster when he gets through, trying to keep the field of operations in view. I had special bolts made which I had soldered on. This is practicable where the wax paint is used and the mangle of the laundry avoided. A good paint will last three years.
Shaving for society appearances cut windfalls all over my face, that I had to cover with the overhang of whiskers. I tried the old-style razor, but my shaving ran into big money for court plaster, so I got some safety razors, several brands of them, determined to keep a decent-looking lawn. These devices are like mowing machines in that they have teeth to grip the crop and make it stand straight for the attack of the knife, but the knife doesn't move in a shuttle like that of the mowing machine—it is stationary, so that you have an arrangement that is a combination of mowing machine and road scraper. I think the safety razors were responsible for most of the blanks in my whisker area. They dug chunks out of some of the most fertile spots, and as nothing would grow there, I covered them by the ivy process adopted by bald men, who train eighteen hairs from back of the left ear diagonally up and across the cranial arbor and down the front to a point over the right eye, where the ends are brought up short as if they were rooted near there. I could say I was not bald. This gave me some satisfaction, but I never boasted of it in public. There was a streak of porcupine in our family. This accounted for the trod-grass appearance of my head, even when prepared carefully for public appearance. It was at its best when it looked like a meadow of tall timothy that had been walked over by the cows on a wet day. Curry-combing would not disturb it. Herr Most, Ibsen, Old Hoss Hoey and I had a common quill-haired ancestor.
There were some other points that fitted me to blush unseen. When I was fifteen years old and my voice was changing, it struck a peculiar gait. It ran up and down about six octaves, to the tune of a five-finger exercise. I talked around town for a few weeks in a surprisingly new style, that reminded me of a boarder who came up to our place one summer from New York and undertook to show us how to ride a horse. When the horse got as fast as a spry walk the boarder would teeter up and down in the saddle as if he had been practicing on a spring bed and had kept a chunk of it in each hip pocket for elasticity. George Honkey, our druggist and censor of public manners, said it was the most insipid piece of equine pitty-patter he had ever seen on Main Street, and from the get-up-and-down of it, he guessed it must be the Episcopal ritual for horseback exercise. My vocal cords, while tuning for my lowly part in life's orchestra, for a day at a time would seem to stick to a decent tenor or drop to an impressive bass which would have fitted me to be a preacher, but a sudden attack of mumps, with measles complicating, pulled them to one side and burned the bridge. They afterward drew tight down on the sounding board, so that now when I talk the rickety buzz is like that of a horse-fiddle played with the tremolo and the soft pedal. An aeolian harp made of rubber bands on a bicycle, aroused by the wind as the machine moves swiftly, gives the same soft rasp—a prolonged "sizz."
What chance had a man with women, handicapped as I was? And I have mentioned only a few minor matters, which have come quickly to mind, as I hastily pen this narrative of my adventures as the middleman in Jim's love affairs. And yet I had a true and noble heart, with a capacity for manly devotion as great as any ever advertised on Sunday in the "personal" column. I make this statement because a man in my position must take the stand in his own behalf, if any testimony is to be given for his side of the case. I am the only competent witness to my own virtues. In order to appreciate me, a woman would need to have a fine discrimination. My beauty might have been revealed to such a woman if she had concentrated by absent treatment on my lofty, self-sacrificing character, evidenced by my pursuit of the chaste in art and the sane in philosophy. But all hope had then well-nigh departed. I realized that there were inconsistencies in the theories of the survival of the fittest and natural selection. I was an example of the exception to the rule. Excluded, I became the last of my race. I was the last candy in the box—just as full of sugar as those that had been devoured, but condemned to rattle in solitude because, forsooth, chocolate creams are preferred to gum-drops. Chilled by a want of sympathetic appreciation while mingling with my fellows, I had gradually withdrawn to the scholarly cloisters of our fifth-story apartment, adjacent to the tin roof, which so fascinated the summer sun, and far above the turmoil of a world of men and women wholly disinterested in me. Perhaps this may seem a little too pessimistic for a philosopher whose experience had taught him to be above disappointment, yet I must confess it is true I could not witness the social achievements of my companion without pangs of remorse; the indifference of the world to merit, to much pure gold in the ore, convinced me that a varnished label in six colors maintains the market for mediocrity. Driven to desperation, I might yet seek a beauty doctor and obtain the glazed surface so essential to social success. Bachelorhood with Jim seemed to have been due to his lack of appreciation of others, for according to the favorable comment his comely appearance created, he seemed to be filled with indifference; while with me, as I warmed into high enthusiasm over certain well-defined representatives of the angelic sex, coolness, growing to statuesque frigidity, would develop in the object of my devotions, and the beauty whose charms had bedeviled me into insomnia and wild-eyed desperation became related to me thereafter as the angel surmounting the tombstone that marked the resting place of my folly.
Moderation, therefore, I concluded, was the keynote of success in courtship. When the current became balanced in negative and positive qualities, the desirable equilibrium recognized by each pole as the real thrill of mutual romance, jealousy and despair would spark, blow out the fuse and short-circuit into a proposal and an acceptance. Jim was negative in desire and positive in appearance, thus securing neutrality, and my passive state was the resultant of a positive inclination and a negative exterior. Thus Jim was admired and I was tolerated, but he had progressed no further than I.
One Sunday he and I were strolling through an art gallery.
"What do you call this, Ben?" he whispered behind his hand, pointing to the portrait of a red-haired Diana sitting on a low, mossy stump in a lonely spot. Her back was turned toward us, and she seemed to be taking a sun bath. He looked stealthily around to make sure his curiosity was not noted by the spectators near us.
"It says on the label that Titty Ann painted it. It is the bluest-looking woman I ever saw; how did they come to let it in?"
"Yes," said I, not attempting to disturb his view of the painting or the name of the artist, "Titty Ann was a great painter of the blue-blooded women of the aristocracy, so blue-blooded they seemed to be bruised all over, and Titty Ann wanted you to see there was no place they had not been hurt."
The incident shows how keen was Jim's appreciation of this great subject of universal interest to bachelors. It seemed to me in those days that the fairest creature that ever fluttered could not charm him with the siren whistle of her swishing silk, nor throw a damaging spark from her bright eyes. But here he was, plunged into the most dreadful complications, which seemed in the mind of Tescheron, at least, to be fastening him in the electric chair.
It must have been about 11:30 o'clock when Jim got out of bed and began to mope around the flat, tramp nervously up and down the private hall and scuffle through the closets, the cupboard and among the pots and pans, which fretfully clashed in a heap upon the floor when he sought to unhook his favorite, the upper story of the double boiler. I wondered what ailed him now. From the way the alleged murderer was rattling the crockery and the tinware, back in the kitchen, I knew he had it bad. What prompted him to invade the kitchen and unhook our outfit I don't know, but I think he was trying to heat some water, poor chap!—to accompany a certain pill, on a theory that it was dyspepsia which disturbed his dreams.
Presently he wandered into the front room, looking badly rumpled. He had on his yellow and brown dressing gown and a pair of pink-bowed knitted slippers of a piebald variety, that I had seen displayed by a neighboring gents' furnishing goods store.
"Ben, what are you doing up this time of night? Pretty late, ain't it?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm just cogitating," I answered. "You look sick; anything the matter with you?—and, say, when you go into that kitchen, I wish you wouldn't chuck everything in the place on the floor for me to pick up."
"I picked 'em all up, Ben," was his meek reply.
I never could scold him, so I forgave him and invited him to sit down and have a smoke. He fairly jumped at the idea, and it pleased me to see him bite. I thought then how little Tescheron could know of this innocent blockhead, Jim Hosley, whose heart and brain traps were built on the open, sanitary order, with nothing concealed.
Jim continued fidgety and wide-awake as he took his seat near the table and the county papers. He squirmed on the cushions, smoked hard and complained of the tobacco, the weather, the police magistrates, his tight shoes, the careless washerwoman and a string of matters incidental to the world's work and its burdens that he had never mentioned before so long as I had lived with him, and that was pretty close to ten years. It was easy to see that this was no ordinary case. Several times I had suffered the same sort of misery; had looked for a soft seat and reposeful thoughts in vain. Jim had not noticed it.
A man who has been forty miles over a mountain road on an empty lumber wagon knows what thrills are. I could see that Jim was aboard and that the team had cut loose down hill, for his bones were fairly rattling with the vibrations from the bog hollows, "thank yer, mums," old stumps and disagreeable boulders. He needed help. He couldn't hang on much longer.
"Say, Ben, there was a little matter I wanted to speak to you about," said Jim, with the same uneasy manner in which he had rubbed all our household arrangements the wrong way and aroused the resentment of the frying-pan and its "pards" of the domestic range.
I at once began to talk about something I was reading, to let him down easy and to open him up wider, for I was anxious to burrow into the mystery and dig exploration shafts in all directions. As he seemed to close again, I allowed my comment to drool off into a hum, and then looked up short in a way to send his ideas from mark-time to a continuance of the procession.
"You know that young lady, Miss Tescheron—Miss Gabrielle Tescheron?" asked Jim, tossing his hair into windrows and looking straight away from me.
"Why, I know that lovely girl I've seen you with; is her name—"
"Yes, that's her name, and we're to be married."
"Jim, old boy, let me congratulate you." And we shook hands over this creature who was to wreck our happy home—still, I felt there wouldn't be enough crockery to continue on unless the thing was settled in church or at Sing Sing pretty soon.
"When is it to come off?" I continued, that question usually being No. 2 to the hand-shake and congratulations.
"Ben, I mention this matter because I feel that I need your friendship now more than ever," said he, disregarding my inquiry in a way which clearly showed that Cupid had stubbed a toe. "I am up against it. Tell me, what should be done? You must know a lot about such matters, and I don't seem to understand. It's the old man, her pa; a little whipper-snapper of a dude. I could swat him with my little finger and settle him in a minute. George! I've a mind to, at that."
"That, of course, is out of the question," I advised, tackling the matter as if time and again the fat of my theories had been tried out into the dripping of wedded affinities. "Soft dealing with parents is essential." This wisdom came also as if I were quoting from a book by a Mormon, who had handled every variety of father-in-law. "On what does pa base his opposition?"
"Well, I'll tell you," said Jim, preparing to confess all and let me do the penance. "But it's such blamed nonsense, I'm almost afraid to. It shows what an infernal old fool he is."
"How old is pa?" I inquired.
"Oh, he's an old 'un."
"Says you're old enough to be her father, doesn't he?"
"That's it, but he's off; and how would you get around it, anyway—by postponing it?"
Jim's notion of ages, and Tescheron's, I feared were both wide of the mark, but I let that pass. One was vain and mad, and the other did not observe closely.
"Is that all he said?" I asked.
"Well, no. I'll tell you just what he said as near as I can remember, and see if you can figure out the answer. I came away to-day from his office, squeezed out and dried up, but I gave him no back talk. I simply said, 'Mr. Tescheron, I love your daughter, Gabrielle, and I am here, sir, to ask you to set the day for the wedding,' just like that, as pleasant as if I was chatting to him after church. Say, I thought he would hurrah, or take me around to lunch (it was then after noon) and introduce me to his friends. But he proceeded to breathe an early frost on my green and tender leaves. As I was about to say, Ben, as near as I can remember after rehearsing all this afternoon is this—and I tell you, because if I don't the chances are I'll go right on rehearsing it forever in some asylum, and then everybody will hear it till they are sick and tired of it, and the curtain won't rise on the real show. Said he: 'Well, so you say, so you say, so you say!' This beat me. I had never heard a man talk that way."
"I've heard that kind," said I, knowingly. "He took stitches in his conversation."
"'So you say, so you say. What say I? So? No.' That has been running through my head in a way to set me crazy," continued Jim. "'Do I want a son-in-law nearly as old as I am?' the little jackanapes asked me. 'Not I. So you see, you are too old for Gabrielle.' Now, what do you think of that? Doesn't that beat you? Why, the old chap is over fifty, and he says I am older than he is. I actually believe he's crazy. Hair dye and cologne and young men's clothes seem to give him the notion that he is about thirty and became Gabrielle's father when he was about five years old. He's got an idea from somewhere that I'm twice as old as I am because I'm twice as big as he is—that's the most reasonable way I can look at it. Well, I got so dry in the roof of my mouth I couldn't stub my tongue on it to turn a word; my eyes burned and a cold sweat started. No man his size had ever floored me before. I tried hard to remember he was Gabrielle's father, and out of respect for her I should not injure him. He then piled in on me again. 'That is not all,' he said. 'Gabrielle is ambitious. You are lazy. You have wasted your youth. Look at you! A man of your age who has done nothing yet!'"
From this I gathered that Tescheron's objections were at first personal. He did not find Jim to his liking and was probably urging his daughter to regard the suitor in the same light. Later in the day the better excuse learned from the great detective bureau came to his support.
"What do you think of that, Ben?" continued Jim. "What has he done to brag about? Should I bring a birth certificate?"
"Yes, but he is not marrying Gabrielle himself," said I. "He is trying to help her to find a good husband. You must be generous, Jim, and give a father his due."
"Shucks! He spends all his pay on his clothes. Such a dresser you never saw, and what is he? A rubber-neck, that's all."
"I asked one of the fellows who worked where he does, some time ago, what old man Tescheron did, and he told me he was a rubber-neck. Now, I know very well that a rubber-neck is a fellow who goes around to corner groceries to see what other kinds of crackers are sold there besides the brands furnished by his house. He starts in talking about the price of green-groceries, drifts along for five or ten minutes, and keeps squinting over the cracker boxes. To stave off suspicion he buys an apple, peels it carefully and eats it slowly, while he incidentally craves a cracker and proceeds to pump the innocent grocer on his cracker business. He writes out his notes in full afterward and that grocer is then described on a card index at the main office as handling such and such goods. I ought to know what rubber-necks are, having been around groceries enough."
"A sort of cracker detective," said I.
"That's all. A common, ordinary rubber-neck—gets about fifteen a week. By the way he dresses you'd think he had a king's job. Think of him looking down upon me. Small as I am, I lead him."
"I wonder would he turn up his nose at me, an Inspector of Offensive Trades?" I queried, sadly. "But go ahead, Jim, and stick to your story, for I can see that there is plenty of trouble ahead for you."
This startled Jim into a more direct presentation of his problem.
"Well, I up and told him, said I: 'Mr. Tescheron, Miss Gabrielle and I would like to be married at her home some time soon,' said I; 'and if you don't wish it that way,' said I, 'I guess we can find a place that will be big enough and will answer just as well,' said I; and then I began to start up warmer and get bolder, when he shut me off with a string of cuss words that ran all over me. I didn't suppose he could talk that way, but no one in the office seemed to mind, although I'll bet you could have heard him a mile down South Street."
"South Street?" I asked, in a surprised tone not observed by the single-minded Jim. "Where's his office?"
"The place they deal in fish at wholesale. And yet you say he is a rubber-neck for a cracker house?" I connected the faint suggestion of fish at the Fifth Avenue Hotel with the case at this point, and knew at once Tescheron's business, and from my knowledge gained by many inspections at the market inferred that the father of the girl was a millionaire.
"A queer place for the cracker business," said I.
"Well, a fellow told me; that's all I know," said Jim. "I haven't been sitting on the same sofa with the old gentleman asking him questions."
"Jim, do you know that you have this prospective father-in-law all twisted? He's something besides a cheap dude," said I. "He's no rubber-neck. I'll bet the old chap is well off, and do you want to know why he dresses so fine and keeps cologne on his handkerchief?"
"That's right, he does," said Jim with a wondering gaze. "And it's sickening to find a little, weazened, sawed-off cuss doing it—just to get people to look around to locate him, I warrant. There'd be no questions about old Tescheron if it warn't for his gasoline."
"No, no. You are away off, Jim. You don't know so much about perfumes and their antidotes as I do, and besides, you're not expected to, because it is not your profession. My nose is my bread and butter. I am an expert in the analysis of the nether atmosphere. Any composite bunch of air striking my acute analytic apparatus is at once split into its elements. Put me blindfolded in a woman's kitchen and I can tell you if there is pumpkin pie and rhubarb under cover there, and where they keep the butter and cheese. I can tell you what kind of microbes live in the cellar and all about their relatives, and even if there are moths or other evidences of winged occupancy among the fauna of the mattresses on the floors above. Wonderful, of course; but it's in my line, that's all. Given a peculiar kind of brains and any man can do it just as easily. My great deficiencies in other respects have all tended to the enlargement of this faculty. By some accident of nature my ancestors appear to have inclined toward obtaining a higher development of this sense so important to the protection of life in these days of crowded living. Of course, they did it unconsciously; but Fate wisely predisposes, I believe—"
"Well, what has this all got to do with Gabrielle?" interrupted Jim, crossing first one leg and then the other, and tossing his hair into cocks ready to be thrown on the rigging.
"Patience, Jim, old boy. You can't solve these great mysteries of life which confront us at every crisis of our existence, by jumping off the handle. I am ready to tell you, however, that I have hastily turned over in my mind such data as you have given me, and I find that you have blundered into a favorable position. It will not do for you to make any moves without consulting me, however. If you can patiently bear up while I handle the case for you for a few days—"
"You may handle the father all you please," interrupted Jim, "but not Gabrielle. Everything is quiet at that end of the line."
"Of course," said I. "I would be no good there. Let me adjust the old gentleman. You may be thankful that the trail leads to a wholesale fish-market. I will be right at home there. I think I can surprise you."
Jim shuffled off to bed after receiving my assurances of support. I had been extremely careful to keep from him the knowledge that I was in the game at both ends. In five minutes he was asleep.
Now for a good think on love, murder, political economy and fish. No sleep for me—just a good, long think, with breakfast at 6 A. M., with the correct solution as snugly stored in my mind as ten cents in a dime.
First, I knew nothing about the Brownings and cared less. They didn't figure in my plans at all. My purpose was to startle Pa Tescheron into a full knowledge of his lunacy, and command his appreciation of his future son-in-law.
As I was about to plunge deeper into my cogitations, I picked up a card from the table and read it. It chilled me some, but only for a minute. It ran like this:
PATRICK K. COLLINS, UNDERTAKER AND EMBALMER, 9 West Tenth Street, New York. Cremations a Specialty.
I had heard of that fellow Collins, a notorious man in his line. His specialty, cremations, removed all possibility of pathological or toxicological investigation weeks afterward, when public suspicion became aroused. The political coroners were supposed to be partners of his in crime, and the police had tracked many a case through his establishment to the retorts at the Fresh Pond crematory, where nothing but a few handfuls of ashes remained. Was there to be a cremation in the Browning case? Of course, I asked myself that question, and I also wondered why the sleuths of Smith's had not reported the fact, if it were a fact, to the hotel headquarters. If they knew it, then my telegram to Mr. Tescheron about Coroner Flanagan telephoning to all the cemeteries and his further purposes need not cause alarm. Perhaps he would laugh when he received it. The card had been placed there during my absence. Jim would tell me about it in the morning, so I gave the matter no further consideration.
By that time, 12 o'clock, the detectives must have had Tescheron talked tired, I guessed, and he was probably at home trying to figure how he might escape the coroner's ordeal of publicity on the morrow, unless, of course, they knew this man cremated his victims right after the service.
It so happened that the detectives had him fairly crazy. When he read my message he was completely daft. Instead of working out my plans carefully, so as to achieve a complete fourth-act reconciliation by 6 o'clock, I spent the night answering and sending messages like a general looking through a telescope on a hill-top.
The first lad in blue uniform came just about midnight and scared me a little, but as Jim was not disturbed, all was well. It seems that instead of going to bed, Pa Tescheron took a new start as soon as he read my message about notifying the coroner. Smith was called again to meet him at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, about fifteen minutes by messenger boy from my headquarters. Here is the first message from General Tescheron:
"You have done your worst. If you attempt to expose my family, I will have you prosecuted for blackmail and punished to the full extent of the law. Please call here at once. "TESCHERON."
General Hopkins sent this back by return boy:
"Only evidence of attempted blackmail in this case so far is your message just received. I will keep it. Is Smith also your lawyer? He's a bird. Thanks, but I never go calling after midnight. Please accept my regrets.
I kept copies of the answers also, for I didn't know how far Smith and his bureau might carry this fanatic, for they seemed to have touched him where he was as tender as a wet spot on a paper napkin.
This came back in half an hour:
"Your course is incomprehensible to me. You seem to take this matter as a joke. It may be necessary for me to let the law take its course to achieve my purpose. I do not fear your threats. Please call and talk it over. TESCHERON."
Of course, he didn't fear the exposure, for he knew what a smart lot of detectives he had. But he knew, according to my analysis of the workings of his superheated brain, that the few times he had been real mad in his life and had trusted to his impulses, he had gone deep into the mire of expense or ridicule. Some of the skeletons of these experiences were beginning to rattle in opposition to the oft-repeated easy solution of Smith, who had been stoking that inflamed head since 2 P. M. with the kind of gore which kept it ablaze. Tescheron was certainly getting a fine run for his money, and he had seemed to lose sight of the fact that Smith was filling the part of bookmaker and taking his pile.
"This is no joke. Wait until you get Smith's bill. Hope you have a good picture of yourself for the papers?—it saves the disgrace of a sketch from life. They are bound to make your wife and daughter look well. I have just laid aside a half dozen of our portraits for publication. Seems as if we would have pleasant weather for the coroner's party to-morrow. Don't miss it—or they'll drag you there in the hurry-up wagon.
I guessed he could see I wasn't rattled and was sticking close to my method of play. He could see that a thirty-year-old was no ordinary lad of the fish-market, to get excited when the boss turned red from boiling. This renewed activity on his part, however, threw me clear off the track that was to fetch me up at 6 A. M. with the whole business settled.
The murderer, who had comfortably thrown his burdens on me, in the meantime, snored again with a regularity and smoothness which proved he had banished all thought of his first wife and was preparing his trousseau for a comfortable wedding, with Pa Tescheron controlled and delivered by me at the altar, ready to speak his little piece.
It was a shame for Tescheron to keep those boys running all night, but he did. This came next:
"I'll have my men at the autopsy, but I shall not be there, so you see our pictures will not be printed, as you seem to fear. I do not understand you. Don't you realize what your position is if this crime is revealed? Do not delay further, but come at once. TESCHERON."
In my next I assured him that all our pictures would be printed, for he would be served by subpoena from the coroner, unless he and his family left the State before 8 o'clock.
And so it went, till finally I sent him a line saying that I would guard the murderer all night and meet him at the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 9 A. M. on my way to the coroner's.
Then I turned in and forgot all Jim's troubles. It must have been about 4 A. M.
Now, if early that evening I had learned my lesson, I might have minded my own business, gone to bed early, and, like a wise man, awakened early and left the house before it all happened.
It was just as I had predicted a hundred times, so I was not surprised afterward when I learned how it was. A short time after I went to sleep, Jim was overcome by the fidgets again and took one of those Turkish baths invented by his home folks. This style of bath was pure turkey. It was a regular turkey gobbler system of bathing and I had never heard the like of it before I began to live with Jim. The way to know a man is to live with him when he's in love. It was different in a number of ways from any country custom I had ever heard of up North, but all Jim's folks did it regularly, so he had told me, because they thought it was the greatest thing in the world for a person who felt out of sorts. I had been over to his house many and many a time, but it so happened that I never saw his dad or his ma, or in fact any of them, sitting on their kitchen stove.
Jim rigged up the bath in our flat kitchen with a lot of care. First he would take our set of three sad-irons—the kind that are run with the same handle, especially designed to press trousers under a wet rag—and he would put them on top of the range, one under each leg of a chair as far as they would go, and an old tin cup bottom-side-up under the fourth leg. He was always particular to have a cane seat in the chair and a piping hot fire in the range.
Then he would simplify his toilet till he got it about as we used to have it before diving into the old swimming-hole. When he had reached that point, he brought out a dark-colored quilt with a white ruffle all around the edge. (We liked dark quilts and had quite a number that never seemed to need washing.) In the middle of this quilt he had cut a hole, just large enough to poke his head through and be snug about the neck. When he got that on he pulled on a pair of old slippers that he had tacked tin soles onto. The next and last piece to the harness was his red and blue worsted toboggan cap with a long peak minus the tassel—it was very necessary for the head to get the full benefit or you'd catch cold. This cap he pulled down well over his head and ears, and then he stood on a box and mounted the fiery throne, sitting down mighty easy while spreading the quilt over the back of the chair, and holding it out well so that the pointed ends were as close to the lids as possible to keep the cold air of the room off his shin bones.
It sort of reminded me of an old turkey gobbler; I don't know why, for it was such a serious business with Jim, and he looked so glum. But with the pointed ends dragging, he seemed to be strutting, and when he got heated up nicely and began to drip on the hot lids, the "hist" noise it made was just the same as an old gobbler's.
I've known him to swelter there in his turkey bath till he fairly sizzled, "hissing" like the proudest gobbler on the farm, and then step off easy onto the box, jump into bed, pull a heap of blankets over him and enjoy a good wilt.
It is the most natural thing in the world that the quilt caught fire without Jim noticing it. And thus ended our housekeeping.
I woke up six weeks later in a hospital.
The circus side-shows used to exhibit specimens of the human family who were nothing but head. They had been sliced off clean at the neck and rested comfortably with the stump on a parlor table. The underside had evidently healed over nicely without corns, for they were the most amiable and smiling people you would find in the whole show. Spectators were not allowed within six feet of these people in reduced circumstances, for it was plainly desirable that no one should kick the table over or playfully tap them to see if they were really alive. Sceptics in the crowd said that mirrors did it. A razor might have done it, for all I cared. It gave me joy as a boy to think how it would feel to be only head and decorate a table. Brains certainly counted with them—they were always on top. And if they trained their tongues to run out and wash their faces and comb their hair, a valet would not be necessary. I've seen a man with no legs find a way to jump on a Broadway car and a man without arms can't be kept from playing the piano with his toes. This is because human nature has such a persistent way of trying to do the difficult thing, usually with wonderful success. Man can't fly nor be a fish naturally, but he wants to know how it would feel, and so he makes some startling flights and dives at doing both.